Heart-to-heart talk with dad helped Samsonov fight for his hockey life
The Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets.
Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov credits a heart-to-heart chat with his father for helping him gain perspective during the most challenging time in his life.
"He said, 'You need to fight for this. It doesn't matter what's going on. You have a family. You have a kid. You not small guy anymore. You're not in a kids garden. You live in a big life.' This is really helping for me, extra motivation, and good to learn this."
Samsonov's parents travelled from Russia to see him in late December. His dad is a manager at a construction company back home.
"It's more life experience," Samsonov said of their conversation. "What time he gets a problem with business or something, a problem in life, how he's moving forward all the time ... He's been in a lot of different situations. I know he's not a professional hockey player, but still I really respect him and listen to what he said."
After a nightmare start to the season, Samsonov cleared waivers on New Year's Day and was sent to the American Hockey League where he worked with Toronto Marlies goalie coach Hannu Toivonen and took part in a practice. The 26-year-old returned to the Leafs crease on Jan. 14 when he allowed three goals on 23 shots in a loss to the Detroit Red Wings. He posted his first win since Dec. 9 on Sunday when he stopped 16 of 17 shots to beat the Kraken in Seattle.
"I'm so motivated," said Samsonov, who is 6-3-6 with an .866 save percentage this season. "I so want to play every day. I want to stop the puck hard as you can. And, first, I want to enjoy. Last couple months I forgot how to enjoy to play. I just want to enjoy every moment."
Samsonov will start again on Wednesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
"He was really hungry for the net last week," observed Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. "Partly because of [Martin] Jones' play and partly by design, we kept him hungry by not playing him all week. We wanted him to continue to stack good days knowing that we were definitely going to need him on the weekend."
Samsonov didn't see a lot of shots against a depleted Kraken team, but he made some big saves down the stretch to help the Leafs, who had dropped five of six games, earn an important two points. Samsonov denied a Justin Schultz one-timer with just under seven minutes left.
"The save he made the other night was remarkable," said captain John Tavares. "You can see when he's fighting hard and feeling confident and challenging shots. Yeah, we're thrilled for him. He's a big part of our team."
After not being qualified by the Washington Capitals and becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2022, Samsonov signed a one-year deal with the Leafs. He won the No. 1 job and backstopped the franchise to its first playoff series win in 19 years. Samsonov then signed another one-year deal last summer following an arbitration case.
"Quite honestly, I was not surprised that he had the type of game that he did the other night," said Keefe. "He has very much looked like the Sammy we came to know last season over the last week in practice. I am not surprised he was able to have a performance similar to what he put forth last season."
Samsonov's first save of the third period pic.twitter.com/A1qJ6YehDY— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) January 22, 2024
Auston Matthews passed Samsonov the player-of-the-game belt in the dressing room on Sunday night.
"I don't think it was, like, a charity gift," Matthews said. "Very well deserved. It's been tough for him the last couple weeks and I think [Sunday's performance] was a really good step in the right direction."
Get some smile pic.twitter.com/FNl7Ebu2CK— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 22, 2024
Samsonov admitted the win was "huge" but he was also careful not to get carried away.
"This is not easy process," he said. "Fighting for this, for my [hockey] life ... stay positive is most important thing right now."
Spending time with his wife and 10-month-old son Miroslav has helped.
"This is the biggest piece in my life," Samsonov said. "My wife send me picture of Miro every day. You get, 'Heads up man, we love you. We believe [in] you.' Yeah this really important."
Conversations with Toivonen and Leafs goalie coach Curtis Sanford are helping him stay focused. But there's also something inside of him that clicked.
"No more option for me," Samsonov said. "October to a couple weeks ago, this time is probably hardest in my life, but life is moving forward. I forgot about what's going on in the past. I'm just focused today and focused on the moment."
Prior to Sunday, Jones had started 10 of 11 games for the Leafs. He leads the team with nine wins, but has seen his numbers decline of late. Jones allowed six goals on 21 shots on Saturday in Vancouver.
Joseph Woll continues to skate on his own as he works his way back from a high ankle sprain.
Tavares has gone eight straight games without a point, which makes this the longest drought of his career.
"I can't say it's a great feeling or an easy feeling, but we got a lot of great goal scorers on this team," the 33-year-old centre said. "Just continue to work and do good things out there and not trying to get caught up in the whole, 'What does it feel like when it doesn't score?'"
Toronto's second line is in an offensive rut at the moment. William Nylander has just two goals, both against Vancouver on Saturday, in eight games since signing a contract extension. Tyler Bertuzzi has just one goal in his last 26 games.
"They haven't been playing to the same level that they were earlier in the season, but I think it has less to do with the line and more with the individuals," said Keefe. "They are in — let's call it — a cold spell right now, but to me, they are still giving us good minutes and working hard. We were talking about John the other day. To me, the details of his game have been really good. That is what is most important."
Tavares has gone 20 games without scoring in 5-on-5 play. There is an element of luck involved. Tavares' shooting percentage is 7.4, which is down from his career average of 12.8.
"The next opportunity could be right there in that next shift so you just want to be ready for it and not getting stuck on what happened and something that is now out of your control and it's in the past," Tavares said.
"Everyone likes to focus on goals and assists, but that's not the only thing that wins hockey games," said defenceman Mark Giordano. "The way he plays, I mean, what was he, perfect on draws last game?"
Tavares went 12-2 at the dot in Seattle. He's winning 61.2 per cent of his faceoffs this season, which is sixth overall among those who have taken 100 draws.
"Winning every little battle," Giordano continued. "Plays well defensively. Hard down low. I mean, we got enough goals and assists. He leads the way by example and by how hard he plays night in and night out."
The results aren't coming in terms of points, but Tavares likes his process.
"Just continue to win a lot of puck battles," he said. "That's one area that's been really consistent for me all year."
The Leafs just wrapped up a stretch of 11 games in 20 nights, which included eight stops on the road, but Tavares refuses to use fatigue as an excuse.
"The circumstances are what they are," he said. "Everyone goes through West Coast travel, an 82-game grind, and long stretches on the road."
That said, coming home this week and having two practice days in Toronto will be helpful.
"The great part is obviously our resources here," Tavares said. "Our player development [staff], things like that, we don't always have access to on the road to take advantage of."
Tavares is constantly refining his craft. He was the first skater on the ice ahead of practice and put in work with player development staff member Patrick O'Sullivan. He stick handled through pucks before receiving a pass in the slot and shooting. Tavares also stayed out late after practice. He worked on picking up pucks off the boards and moving to the middle of the ice.
"At this point in his career, he has a far greater perspective of what is really important," Keefe noted. "He needs to help this team win. Of course, producing on offence is part of that, but to me, there is way more to it. If a couple of pucks fall in but his habits are poor, that does not help us win. That is really the message for not just him but our entire team: Those habits, the details, the work, and the defending all come first. The rest of it falls into place."
Tavares may have a new linemate on Wednesday. Bertuzzi missed practice to be with wife Ashley, who is expecting the couple's second child. He may not be available to play against the Jets. Pontus Holmberg moved up to skate on the second line.
Keefe believes improvements on the power play could spark Tavares.
"If our power play gets going, it is going to help all of our guys to sort of ease that pressure a little bit offensively," the coach said. "You start to get more confidence. To me, it is no coincidence that the two things are happening at the same time: the power play is cold and the 5-on-5 play dries up, too."
The Leafs are just one for 15 over the last seven games. The one goal came during a four-on-three advantage in Calgary.
Toronto's top power-play unit worked with assistant coach Guy Boucher before practice. They also did live reps against the penalty kill during the main practice.
"We just want to be a little bit quicker and find ways to get to the inside," said Tavares. "Teams are getting tighter and tighter. So, [we're] trying to get to the inside, attacking the net, and making it difficult on the goalie and not [let him be] able to challenge shooters, challenge shots. And then recovering pucks and being able to attack, as we call it, from the chaos. When you're able to attack and retrieve pucks and be able to get them running around or out of position that's really your chance to strike."
Due to the busy schedule, the Leafs only practised once last week and it was a brief session in Vancouver on Friday.
"A practice day today is a chance to get them some extra touches and sort of reset them a little bit," Keefe said. "It was a good day in that regard. Hopefully, we get some power plays tomorrow and get some opportunities to go to work."
The Leafs are tied for 26th overall in power-play opportunities this season. They have had two or fewer chances in five of the last seven games.
"We went through a stretch there where we didn't have a lot of power plays and didn't have a lot of practice time at the same time," Keefe noted. "We haven't had the reps and the touches. I think the pace is really slowing down, which happens when you start to overthink things."
The zone entries, in particular, have been an issue.
"Execution has been off," Keefe said prior to Sunday's game. "When execution is off and passing is off, entries aren't as clean. You don't spend as much time in the offensive zone and don't put as much wear and tear on the opposition."
Giordano sat out Sunday's game as a healthy scratch and, based on practice, it appears the 40-year-old will be back in the press box on Wednesday.
"I feel good," Giordano said of his game. "Trying to get the reps in. Obviously practice helps and go from there."
The Toronto native is the oldest player in the league, but doesn't like taking time off.
"When you sit out games it's hard to stay in a rhythm," he said. "I had about a month and a little bit off with a broken thumb so feel pretty rested."
"We know what we are going to get from Gio, which is absolute competitiveness and leadership," said Keefe. "He will continue to put the work in to make sure he is ready."
"We have been feeling like we could utilize an extra right shot on our defence to help us with our puck movement on the breakout, coming out of the neutral zone, on our regroups, and at the offensive blue line," Keefe said. "That is part of the decision-making process."
With the second line slumping, Toronto's top line has been carrying the load. Matthews scored again on Sunday. It was his 38th goal of the season, which leads the league.
"He's going through traffic and the puck just sticks to his stick," observed third-line centre Max Domi. "He kicks it up or he does something outrageous. It's crazy to think that we're just getting used to seeing it, but every shift he's doing something. He's always a threat."
Mitch Marner made a nice play from behind the net to set up the latest Matthews goal.
"Just really good anticipation by him," noted Matthews. "When we're on the same page like that you just kind of see the play happening. I think we both know where each other are at on the ice, so he just made an unbelievable play to me. I had a little bit of time to hang onto it and make a play to the backhand."
Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 22, 2024
After being held without a goal on Saturday, Matthews is now back on pace for 70 goals.
"Obviously, it was a big-time goal by Auston coming off of a big-time feed by Mitch to get us going in the game," Keefe said.
Matthews played more than 23 minutes in Vancouver and then almost hit 22 minutes in Seattle. Marner played even more.
"They did a tremendous job," Keefe said. "On a back-to-back, their minutes are probably a little higher than I wanted them to be, but they were playing so well and also because of the way the matchups were going, they [Kraken] were matching pretty heavily against him, which was keeping some of their better offensive people off of the ice. That just encouraged me to play them more."
After sitting out the first three games of the road trip as a healthy scratch, Nick Robertson made the most of his chance Sunday night. The winger scored the game-winning goal against the Kraken.
"It definitely takes your stress out of everything," he said.
"That's what he does," said linemate Domi. "He scores. In the first he had a chance off the rush there and I knew when he missed that one that the next one was going in. That's kind of how it goes with him. If he misses one, which is rare, the next one goes in."
What happened on that first chance?
"Even when you miss a game or two, you feel a little rusty," Robertson said. "I just wanted to get that one on net ... The second one, he put it in my wheelhouse there and it was easy."
Robertson put three shots on net, which was second on the team behind only Matthews.
"I thought Nick was excellent," said Keefe. "It was important to get some fresh legs and energy in. With Nick, in particular, you know he is going to give you everything he has. At a time when we haven't used him on the trip, he is going to have more in the tank than anyone else."
Robertson only logged eight minutes and 52 seconds and was used sparingly in the third period.
"With it being so tight a game, it was a little bit harder to get him on out on the ice," Keefe acknowledged. "His minutes probably reflected that, but I liked every second that he played. He did a tremendous job, and not just because he scored a goal. How he worked and how he managed the puck was a really good effort from him."
Robertson has now scored in four of his last six games dating back to Dec. 29, and yet he has found himself sitting as a healthy scratch in seven of Toronto's last 10 games. The message from the coaching staff?
"They said the situation is we have great players who can be in the lineup," Robertson revealed. "Toronto has depth so just got to accept the situation. Obviously everyone wants to play. I want to play. All I can do is just work hard and do the things away from the rink, mentally preparing to be in the lineup, and keep doing what I'm doing when I'm playing."
The 22-year-old continued to skate on the third line with Domi and Calle Jarnkrok at Tuesday's practice.
"It's definitely not easy trying to get in a rhythm when you're not playing every night," said Matthews. "Every game he's played in he seems to find the back of the net so that's always a positive thing. Jarny's such a workhorse and Max is such a good passer, they really complement each other well with Robbie having the heavy shot that he does."
Ryan Reaves projects to be a scratch again on Wednesday when his hometown Jets visit Toronto. The veteran tough guy has not played since suffering a knee injury on Dec. 14. Reaves has been practising in a regular sweater for weeks, but was only activated off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon.
Reaves was not available to the media after practice.
Ryan Reaves has been activated from the IR.— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) January 23, 2024
Tyler Bertuzzi, who is with his wife awaiting the birth of a child, has been designated a non-roster player and doesn't count against the team's 23-man limit while away.
Lines at Tuesday's practice:
Knies - Matthews - Marner
Holmberg - Tavares - Nylander
Robertson - Domi - Jarnkrok
McMann - Kampf - Gregor
Rielly - Brodie
McCabe - Liljegren
Benoit - Timmins
Giordano - Lagesson
Absent: Bertuzzi (personal)
Power-play units at Tuesday's practice:
Nylander, Rielly, Matthews, Marner, Tavares
Timmins, Domi, Jarnkrok, Robertson, Knies